Supreme Court has vacated Madras HC stay on award of land titles to forest-dwelling Scheduled TribesSouth Pole
February 10, 2016, 8:28 PM IST C K Sreedharan

A Supreme Court ruling on February 1 delivered justice to the rights of forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes in the state. The court vacated a stay by the Madras high court in April, 2008, restricting the distribution of title deeds to these forest-dwelling communities in the state. Distribution of land titles was mandated by the “Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006“, popularly known as the Forests Rights Act (FRA), promulgated in the year 2006. The act sought to correct the historical injustice done to forest dwelling communities.

The act confers on tribals crucial rights to hold and own forest land where they have traditionally lived, as well as providing livelihood and basic facilities to them. Many states and Union territories which have such forest-dwelling communities started implementing FRA immediately after the notification of the rules on January 1, 2008, by issuing title deeds to land.N e a rl y 8 9 lakh acres of forest land have been distributed to these communities. Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh have taken the lead in this.

In response to a PIL contesting the constitutional validity of this Act, the Madras high court, in April 2008, granted a restrictive prohibitory order on the issue of title deeds to tribal communities. An opportunity was delayed or almost lost due to this order.
Non-conferment of title to the land which tribals cultivate and on which they live has deprived them of several entitlements. They cannot get any bank loans. The tehsildar, apparently the only official authorized to do so, has refused to give them domicile certificates on the grounds that the land is under the forest depart ment’s jurisdiction. The forest department may not have obtained the authority for issuing domicile certificates for such people or is not permitted by law to issue them. Whatever the legal technicalities, the villagers have been deprived of access to a critical document which is their passport to several other benefitsentitlements.
Lack of a domicile certificate means that they cannot get a Schedule CasteTribe certificate depriving the predominantly tribal residents of all the special benefits meant for SCs STs. They cannot apply for jobseducational facilities reserved for such groups. Lack of land title also deprives them of housing assistance under the Indira Awas Yojana.
Till recently, they did not have access even to BPL cards to enable them to avail of subsidized goods including kerosene under the PDS. During drought, they are not entitled to compensation for crop loss due to not being covered by crop insurance. Government functionaries avoid visiting the villages, as the forest department has discouraged their presence in its `jurisdiction’.
Further, the forest boundaries could not be consolidated nor delineated and were liable for further en croachments leading to forest degradation and even destruction. The relationship between forest department personnel and tribals has not been harmonious and or has been strained.SC’s vacation of the stay opens the door to speedy implementation of the FRA in Tamil Nadu, subject to the decision on the main petition.
A rough estimate shows that not more than about 10,000 hectares of forest out of 21 lakh hectares in Tamil Nadu -0.47% -may have to be settled in this matter. But it would generate tremendous goodwill among and benefit to forest-dwelling STs, besides better consolidation and protection of forests.
Tracts of land which are already being occupied by these tribes as on December 13, 2005, are eligible for issue of title. Hence there would be no real loss of forest land. Effective implementation of the act will certainly generate a win-win situation both for forests as well as tribals in Tamil Nadu. The quality of life of tribals is bound to improve as a result. It is also an excellent opportunity for nurturing an harmonious relationship and promoting goodwill between the forest department and tribals in TN.